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updated 4/18/2011 3:57:44 PM ET 2011-04-18T19:57:44

In America's national parks, you won't risk your Boy Scout badge for secretly longing for a shelter with a door, not a zipper, and a bouncy mattress, not packed earth. Repeat after us: Real campers do stay in cabins.

The National Park Service runs, through concession arrangements, hundreds of beguiling cabins around the country. The properties are neither too hard (campsites) nor too soft (lodges), and they do right by the Earth. Because of the agency's strict oversight, the accommodations embrace green philosophies and practices; the "tread lightly" ethos doesn't stop at the porch.

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Though self-contained, the cabins also are members of a larger ecosystem. Many are part of a central village, with the individual units orbiting a main lodge housing a slew of amenities, such as restaurants, gift shops, activity centers and the requisite grand fireplace. A number of the structures are historic too, built on story plots as entertaining as those you might hear around the campfire. And they all combine the fairy-tale charm absent from chain motels with an independent spirit missing from most how-may-I-serve-you resorts. You will be the king or queen of your cabin — and, best of all, you won't need to sell any of the royal jewels to pay the bill.

For your next park adventure, we suggest that you keep the tent under the bed and consider one of these plucky cabins scattered around seven U.S. national parks. And don't forget to hang your Boy Scout badge on the front door.

Slideshow: America’s lesser-known national parks (on this page)


Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
Bright Angel Lodge and Cabins

At Bright Angel, nothing comes between you and the canyon, except your own restraint. A handful of the 18 cabins perch like intrepid birds along the South Rim, offering (please don't) drop-dead gorgeous views of the valley below. To ratchet up the whoa factor, choose a cabin with a fireplace, or book the Buckey O'Neill suite, considered the oldest continuously standing structure on the rim. Those suffering from vertigo can take a step back in a cabin set deeper in the Ponderosa pines. However, don't think you are any less of a cowboy; you just prefer a wider front yard.

In the 1930's, famed architect Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter was hired to develop guest cabins and remodel the lodge. Colter deferred to nature in her designs, using local materials such as wood, adobe and stone to close the gap between indoors and out. Yet she also recognized the need for creature comforts, adding private bathrooms so that guests wouldn't have to go to bed with canyon dust under their nails.

Big Bend National Park, Texas
Roosevelt Stone Cottages

All overnight guests who don't want to pitch a tent end up at the Chisos Mountains Lodge, the only crash pad in the park. However, only five lucky parties can claim a bed in one of the Roosevelt Stone Cottages. (Other visitors are resigned to the more predictable hotel, motel or lodge rooms.)

The cabins predate by a few years the establishment of the national park in 1944. That's what we call fortuitous planning. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), a New Deal program during the Depression, built the structures in the rugged Chisos Basin, 5,400 feet elevation. Photo replicas of this era decorate the walls, a nod to the CCC men and their hardscrabble times, while original historic fabrics and materials sprinkled about the cabins advance the idea that you are sleeping in a time capsule.

The cottages comfortably fit up to six, and two of the buildings are attached, creating a duplex for the Smith Family's Yee-Haw Reunion. Despite the lack of air-conditioning, the structures' thick walls, stone floors, overhead fans and vaulted ceilings keep the heat in check. You can also make some iced coffee (coffee pot and fridge with small freezer included), kick back on the porch, and listen for the snort and snuffle of incoming javelina.

Isle Royale National Park, Michigan
Rock Harbor Lodge and Marina
The call of the wild is pretty loud and clear in this remote park inhabiting a 45-mile-long island in northwest Lake Superior. However, you won't feel as isolated as a moose in the suburbs at the lodge, a veritable beehive of activity with a marina, small grocery store, gift shop and cozy shelters. (The lodge is open summers only.)

Twenty cabins inhabit this speck of civilization, settling in the space between the marina and Tobin Harbor, an inlet traced with trails. Reachable only by watercraft or seaplane, the property provides a self-sufficient set-up. Why the Robinson Crusoe treatment? Because if you are suddenly famished, you can't run out to the nearest store to pick up burritos and beer — there is no nearest store. (The ferry takes anywhere from three to six hours, depending on the departure point; the plane takes a half-hour, weather permitting.) The cabins, which were built during the Mission 66 program in the 1950's and 60's, think of everything: kitchenettes with utensils and dishware; private bath with tub, shower and dressing room; double bed and bunk bed; linens and towels; electric heat; and a living room with large picture windows ideal for moose- and loon-spotting. The rate even includes a half-day canoe rental, so you can see for yourself that there isn't a mini-mart around for miles.

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Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska
Coastal Public Use Cabins

This southern Alaska park features one of the more extreme landscapes in the country (imagine the American Museum of Natural History coming to life in your freezer), and its coastal cabins fit the profile. Available only in the summer, the Aialik and Holgate hobbity huts come with a heating stove (propane fuel provided), pit toilet, table and chairs, and wooden bunks. You'll need to bring the rest (sleeping and cooking gear and illumination), plus arrange transportation by floatplane, boat, whale — whatever it takes to get you there.

However, another option also exists, if you don't mind straying from the NPS family. Within the park, the Kenai Fjords Glacier Lodge rents chill-luxe cabins on a private wildlife sanctuary with Alutiiq ties. The 16 abodes with bathrooms play hide-and-seek in the dense green landscape, so you can discreetly watch the wildlife frolicking in Pedersen Lagoon without spooking it. Accessible only by boat, the cabins are part of a full-experience package that includes meals and excursions by land, sea and glacier.

Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel and Cabins

The country's first national park is alive with geothermal fireworks that spurt, steam, bubble and burp. At the Mammoth Hot Springs resort (open summer and winter only), a quartet of cabins faithfully — and safely — upholds this hydro-attraction theme.

Located in the northwest corner by the tumbling limestone terraces, the standalone cabins come with fenced-in hot tubs suitable for six bodies. With the exception of the outdoor soakers, the Hot Tub Cabins mirror the other units in the Mammoth collection, the Frontier and the Budget cabins. All three types resemble winsome garden sheds with chair-endowed porches and motel-style interiors. Only the Frontier and Hot Tub accommodations boast a private shower and toilet; Budget guests have a sink but must hoof it over to the communal facility for their other needs. To keep it fair, no one has modern-day distractions; forget about TVs, Wi-Fi, telephones, radios or air-conditioning. For a diversion true to the setting, sit in your personal hot pot and wait for the elk and bison to come grazing by.

Slideshow: America's national parks (on this page)

Yosemite National Park, California
Curry Village

Set in Yosemite Valley, Curry Village exudes a happy camper-in-a-cabin feel. No surprise considering its origins: In 1899, schoolteachers David and Jenny Curry established a family camp here with a dozen tents, charging $2 for room and board, half the going rate. A lot has changed since then — for one, the price is now in the $50 - $90 range. Also, the tents have sprouted canvas sides and a wooden platform and frame; sleeping bags have moved over for beds; and the main source of light comes from electricity, not fire.

Wool blankets provide cocoon-like warmth. However, those prone to chills might opt for a canvas tent with heat (a select number are available early fall through mid-May) or the Signature version, with insulated paneling. You can also trade up for one of about 100 heated wood cabins, with or without a bathroom. Once you are settled in, hike to Glacier Point, hop the free park shuttle, or roost on your deck and let nature come to you.

Olympic National Park, Washington
Sol Duc Hot Springs Resort

Nature has been very kind to the Sol Duc Hot Springs, and guests reap this generosity. The full-service property in the northwest region of the park sprinkles its 27 cabins in, around or very near an old-growth forest of evergreens, a river heavily trafficked with Coho salmon, a misty waterfall and spring-fed pools that prove irresistible to tired hikers.

The cabins capture the rustic Northwest spirit with patchwork quilts and headboards decorated with cutouts of pine trees and antlered animals. Six of the models mash together two units to create a duplex, complete with full kitchen to feed the hungry mouths of many. As if the tub and coffee maker weren't enough, cabin denizens are granted free access to the trio of steamy mineral pools and one freshwater pool. With this arrangement, you don't have to feel bad about double (or triple) dipping.

Booking a cabin
Before booking, ask yourself this crucial two-part question: Will I need to take a bathroom break in the dead of the night and do I have a bad sense of direction? If the answer is a double affirmative, consider a cabin with facilities. Units with a private bath book up faster than those with shared, but at least you won't have to worry about tripping over a raccoon in your bunny slippers.

Ask the reservationist if linens and things are included. (Trust us, T-shirts make bad towels.) If the cabin comes with a kitchen, inquire about the availability of cooking and dishware. Also, ask if there is grocery store onsite. That said, even if there is one, for lower prices and wider variety you might want to stock up on supplies at a supermarket outside the park.

Popular parks such as Yosemite and Yellowstone fill up fast in the summer high season but free up during the shoulder season and empty out in the winter. If the dates you want are booked, don't give up; call closer to your desired times to take advantage of possible cancellations. Reservation windows vary, but many let you book up to 13 months in advance.

There is no centralized reservation system for park accommodations; you need to go to the individual concessionaire. For the link and other lodging options, go to the specific park's home page and click on Plan Your Visit, then Things To Know Before You Come (or some variation on that phrase). For general information on the National Park Service, plus links to its parks, see www.nps.gov.

Photos: America's national parks

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  1. Acadia

    Acadia National Park in Maine boasts the highest mountain on the U.S. Atlantic Coast and was the first national park east of the Mississippi River. Visitors beware: temperatures can vary 40 degrees -- from 45 degrees to 85 degrees in the summer and from 30 degrees to 70 degrees in the spring and fall. (Gareth Mccormack / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Rocky Mountain

    Bear Lake, with mountainside aspens changing colors in mid-autumn, is one of the popular attractions in Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. (Universal Images Group via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Badlands

    The climate in South Dakota's Badlands National Park is extreme. Temperatures range from minus 40 degrees in the dead of winter to 116 degrees in the height of summer. Visitors are drawn to the park's rugged beauty as well as the area's rich fossil beds. (Mark Newman / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Yosemite

    One of the nation's first wilderness parks, Yosemite is known for its waterfalls, scenic valleys, meadows and giant sequoias. (Robert Galbraith / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. North Cascades National Park

    The North Cascades National Park complex offers something for everyone: Monstrous peaks, deep valleys, hundreds of glaciers and phenominal waterfalls. The complex includes the park, Ross Lake and Lake Chelan National Recreation Areas. (David Mcnew / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Zion

    This spectacular corner of southern Utah is a masterpiece of towering cliffs, deep red canyons, mesas, buttes and massive monoliths. (Mark Ralston / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Redwood

    Created in 1968, Redwood National Park is located in Northern California. Today, visitors to the national park can enjoy the massive trees as well as an array of wildlife. (David Gotisha / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Joshua Tree

    Joshua Tree National Park is located in southeast California. The area was made a national monument in 1936 and a national park in 1994. Outdoor enthusiasts can go hiking, mountain biking and rock climbing. (Gabriel Bouys / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Great Smoky Mountains

    Straddling the Tennessee-North Carolina border, Great Smoky Mountains National Park encompasses more than 800 square miles in the southern Appalachian Mountains. Visitors can expect mild winters and hot, humid summers, though temperatures can differ drastically as the park's elevation ranges from 800 feet to more than 6,600 feet. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Arches

    More than 2,000 natural sandstone arches, many of them recognizable worldwide, are preserved in Utah's Arches National Park. Temperatures can reach triple digits in the summer and can drop to below freezing in the winter. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Grand Teton

    The Snake River flows through Grand Teton National Park, and the jagged Teton Range rises above the sage-covered valley floor. Daytime temperatures during summer months are frequently in the 70s and 80s, and afternoon thunderstorms are common. (Anthony P. Bolante / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Haleakala

    Visitors watch the sun rise at 10,000 feet in Haleakala National Park in Maui, Hawaii. If weather permits, visitors at the top of the mountain can see three other Hawaiian islands. (The Washington Post via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Grand Canyon

    Grand Canyon National Park is perhaps the most recognizable national park. Nearly 5 million visitors view the mile-deep gorge every year, formed in part by erosion from the Colorado River. The North and South rims are separated by a 10-mile-wide canyon. (Gabriel Bouys / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Yellowstone

    Yellowstone National Park, America's first national park, was established in 1872. The park spans parts of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho. Grizzly bears, wolves, bison and elk live in the park. It is well known for Old Faithful and other geothermal features. (Mark Ralston / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Mount Rainier

    Glaciers. Rainforests. Hiking trails. Mount Rainier National Park, located in Washington state, offers incredible scenery and a diverse ecology. The park aims to be carbon neutral by 2016. (National Park Service) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Hawaii Volcanoes

    Two of the world's most active volcanoes can be found within Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. In 1980, the national park was designated an International Biosphere Reserve; in 1987, it was added as a World Heritage Site. (David Jordan / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Everglades

    Everglades National Park covers the nation's largest subtropical wilderness. It is also a World Heritage Site, an International Biosphere Reserve and a Wetland of International Importance. Visitors to the park can camp, boat, hike and find many other ways to enjoy the outdoors. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Glacier

    A view from atop the Grinnell Glacier Overlook trail in Glacier National Park. With more than 700 miles of trails the park is known for its glaciers, forests, alpine meadows and beautiful lakes. (Matt McKnight / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Bryce Canyon

    Located in southwestern Utah, Bryce Canyon National Park is known for its distinctive geological structures called "hoodoos." (Mark Ralston / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Crater Lake

    The brilliant blue Crater Lake, located in southern Oregon, was formed when Mount Mazama, standing at 12,000 feet, collapsed 7,700 years ago after a massive eruption. Crater Lake is one of the world's deepest lakes at 1,943 feet. (David Gotisha / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Olympic

    Washington state's Olympic National Park offers visitors beaches on the Pacific Ocean, glacier-capped mountain peaks and everything in between. Keep the weather in mind when visiting, though, as roads and facilities can be affected by wind, rain and snow any time of year. (National Park Service) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Sequoia and Kings Canyon

    A woman stands among a grove of a Giant Sequoia trees in Sequoia National Park in Central California. The trees, which are native to California's Sierra Nevada Mountains, are the world's largest by volume, reaching heights of 275 feet and a ground level girth of 109 feet. The oldest known Giant Sequoia based on its ring count is 3,500 years old. (Mark Ralston / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Denali

    Alaska's Denali National Park spans 6 million acres and includes the 20,320-foot Mount McKinley, North America's tallest peak. Many park visitors try to catch a glimpse of the "big five" -- moose, caribou, Dall sheep, wolves and grizzly bear. (National Park Service) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Kenai Fjords National Park

    The National Park Service considers the 8.2-mile round-trip on Harding Icefield Trail in Alaska's Kenai Fjords National Park to be strenuous, saying hikers gain about 1,000 feet of elevation with each mile. (National Park Service via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Death Valley

    California's Death Valley encompasses more than 3.3 million acres of desert wilderness. In 1849, a group of gold rush pioneers entered the Valley, thinking it was a shortcut to California. After barely surviving the trek across the area, they named the spot "Death Valley." In the 1880s, native peoples were pushed out by mining companies who sought the riches of gold, silver, and borax. (Gabriel Bouys / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Wind Cave

    Bison graze in Wind Cave National Park in the southern Black Hills of South Dakota. Millions of bison were slaughtered by white hunters who pushed them to near-extinction by the late 1800s. Recovery programs have brought the bison numbers up to nearly 250,000. (David McNew / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Canyonlands

    The Lower Basins Zone is outlined by the white rim edge as seen from the White Rim Trail in Canyonlands National Park, Utah. (Doug Pensinger / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Shenandoah

    Fall colors blanket the Shenandoah National Park, drawing tourists to Skyline Drive to view the scenery. (Karen Bleier / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Gareth Mccormack / Lonely Planet Images
    Above: Slideshow (28) America's national parks
  2. Image:
    Stephen Saks / Lonely Planet Images
    Slideshow (18) America’s lesser-known national parks

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